Tag Archives: Better than language

Saying Cheese with Joe Luna

I’m going to start at the end – what does it mean to ‘say cheese’? Most of us will recognise as the phrase photographers (amateur and professional) are supposed to use to make their subjects smile and appear reasonably happy. So, saying cheese is providing an indicator of mood and of general amiability which may or may not be a reflection of what’s going on within and sometimes the effort to smile is obviously forced that it gives away the anguish that is in reality besetting the subject.

I started writing about Joe’s work (I think) in about 2011 with his inclusion in the landmark ‘Better than Language’ anthology and made the point then that the fascinating thing about the work was what seemed to be going on at one step removed from the text. Since then I’ve read ‘For the White Lake Blot‘ on Claudius App and now have in my possession a thin volume entitled ‘Astroturf’ which was published earlier this year. There’s clearly a progression going on- a development that seems to encompass both a more formal lyricism and a quite grim playfulness that’s better thought through.

I’m going to use two poems to think through what I think I mean. As ever, what follows is entirely provisional and subject to change at any time. The first is ‘Shinier & More Resistant’ which is, to use Keston Sutherland’s technical term, decidedly prosey.

It’s in four parts and I’ll start with most of the first part:

You make an infant head count or sway gallantly inside singy lips
love-peak, a crescent just there pointing at a forcefield. Gum
open the ribcage pointing at it. In deepest Earth go terminal
at singy lips or sway gallantly inside an infant headcount colouring
the picture sky blue, there is a public plague over the entrance
portable to the last incalculable fetish and a quality street that renders
people who dodge every awful agenda - recalcify their hats, their pointy
expectations, a timid want streak is overtly fucked.

It seems to me that there are several things going on here that need some thinking about. The first is the repeated ‘infant head count’ which is nearly ambiguous. In what circumstance do we count children? As someone who has dragged young people over quite difficult terrain, I would count heads in order to make sure that the group was reasonably together and that nobody had fallen by the wayside or run off (these were young offenders on remand). Any outing with a group of young people involves regular and reasonably frequent head-counts of this sort. The other kind of head count that comes to mind is when something terrible has occurred, as in a school shooting, and police need to know how many kids have escaped unscathed. There’s also the gruesome count that needs to differentiate the dead from the wounded.

There’s also the possibility that ‘infant’ is an adjective as in ‘infantile’ and the headcount my also be the kind of counting that goes on mentally- inside the head to oneself.

The other obvious ambiguity is the lips that are said to be ‘singy’- are these lips in the everyday sense of the flesh around the opening of the mouth or are they some other kind of lip? ‘Lip’ can also refer to insolence. ‘Singy’ is more problematic because it might appear to be better than it is. What I’m not going to do, for the moment is wade through the fourteen main and many more subsidiary definitions of the verb but, in making this decision, the OED reminds me that sing is also a noun whose primary definition is “the sound made by a bullet or other projectile in its flight” which would take us back into gruesome territory if the lips are the mouth of a gun or larger piece of artillery- the noise made can refer to a shell or a missile as well as a bullet. In which case ‘singy’ is at least as good as it appears.

Before I get into more casting about, I want to have a brief interlude on the function of repetition. The most obvious ‘aim’ in repeating something is to add emphasis, to stress the importance of a particular phrase or image but there’s also the way it can be used to build on or develop a theme. I’m an enormous fan of repetition that’s used in this way but here there might be a bit more going on. These phrases and ‘sway gallantly’ recur within the first four lines and they appear to be used in completely different ways, not a development but a quite radical repositioning of sense. It now occurs to me that swaying gallantly can also have quite gruesome connotations.

The poem develops into what appears to be a quite complex examination of our indifference to the wanton destruction that we continue to wreak on each other:

and in the morning happiness is totally different from what you think it is. With
out disregard for living human beings there could be no swapping, life
does appear, and life-size you split the cylinder right down the middle
and say cheese.

I don’t think I’ll be alone in finding this an accomplished and completely satisfying way to end a poem- I’ll come back to the rest of it at a later stage and give some more thought to those first four lines. I’ll also attempt to deal with the Lana Del Ray problem.

It may be that Luna’s work has always had a lyrical streak and I’ve either missed it or filed it elsewhere. However, the last poem in this remarkable collection is ‘Night Thought’ which consists of three three-line stanzas and a single line. It’s quite formal in that the last line of each of the three stanzas rhymes with the others. I want to quote the last four lines primarily because I don’t have the talent or skill to write them but really wish that I did:

I go to bed and want to feel alive in time
to listen to the only sound that doesn't either
pierce my skin, or throws my head over the sink.

Night is big and clumsy. I am thin, and weak.

The last line is wonderful and is made perfect, I would argue, by the inclusion of the comma.

Astroturf is available from Hi Zero Publications at a fiver including p and p. It’s an important addition to our cultural landscape.


Tomas Weber on The Claudius App.

Suzanne Takkenberg and the bath – Ardtornish 2012

(Incidentally, I’ve just written an intro to ‘Mercian Hymns’, any kind of feedback would be much appreciated.)

I’ll start with a request. Can poets please stop writing brilliant pieces of work with such frequency? It’s just that I ran out of reasonable/sensible ways to enthuse in best puppy dog fashion in early 2011 and I don’t think I can vary the superlatives any more.

I now need to do a longish letter-

Dear The Claudius App,

First of all, thank you for disturbing me and unsettling me over the last three issues. I’d almost given up on finding a platform that reflects what I think might be Quite Important in these tumultuous times. Thank you also for introducing me to new names and for the Emily Dorman thing which has sparked off a reasonably productive train of thought here.

Now, I’m guessing that I’m much older than you and I’m trying hard not to sound like some bad tempered baby boomer whose cross because the kids aren’t playing by the rules but it’s this site design/affectation gizmo thing that may well be considered cool and pointful in your neck of the woods but for this avid reader is just irritating. Having said that I do applaud the inclusion of audio files which are decently recorded and do what should be done.

So, great and groundbreaking venture (I’m particularly fond of the Manifesto conceit which I’ll write about shortly) but it would be helpful if I didn’t have to amend the url as
a simpler way of getting to the material that I want.

Thanks again,


As for Weber the temptation is just to provide the link to his ‘An official word from me out of uniform’ and leave readers to simply read yet another blazing example of why this is a ‘wonderful age for poetry’ (to quote John Bloomberg-Rissman, Neil Pattison, Peter Brown and several others). Of course, I can’t resist having another go at the enthusiasm thing. On this occasion, however, I’m going to try a bit more structure:

Phrasing / Language use

I am a sucker for the neat turn of phrase and Weber provides these in abundance. In fact the initial read was breathtaking due to the density of neat turns and the fact that they had a point and weren’t just placed as a piece of flashy ornament. This is really unusual, many poets become overly impressed with a particular phrase or image and include it for the sake of its cleverness more than its’ relevance to the rest of the poem. I’ll give this as an example of how to do neat phrases properly:

An eight ball of blow and a contract
with the DA's office for Sofitel
voucher codes and next level cheats. In love with the pair
who wore grey Japanese
hakamas on the Mexican escalators. No, no
OK, but what? Chopper out of Vostok
to Progress Station, kite-skiing, golden visitor's book
for those who make it to the site to sign?

‘Sofitel voucher codes and next level cheats’ running on to ‘hakamas on the Mexican elevators’ does show a very rare skill in language and expression. What I think I like most is the way that each poem sets up a pace (rather than a rhythm) and maintains / sustains this throughout accommodating the most extraordinary images as it goes. The above example is only the most florid demonstration of this skill/craft which is on display throughout. With regard to these images, I have to ask what exactly is going on in a mind that can produce the first three lines quoted above- its depiction of the almost overly manic mindset is one that I am very familiar with- and it is done with such flair.


Taking risks with your work is always a good thing, especially when things don’t quite come off. With this kind of material it is really very easy to fall flat on your face. The annoying thing about Weber is that he takes risks and never falls off. Keston Sutherland falls off, Jeremy Prynne falls off, Geoffrey Hill falls off but Tomas Weber doesn’t which is especially galling for those of us who fall off all the time but also a kind of challenge to work out how this is achieved. My own hypothesis is that this is what I’m thinking of as structured risk whereby the run on in pace feels spontaneous and almost improvised but it’s actually thought through and planned and it’s this structuring that is most impressive because it also needs to hide itself. In a previous piece on Weber’s contribution to ‘Better than Language’, I referred to the ‘insane quality’ of his work but (having re-read) insanity has little to do with it- there’s a very sane and talented mind at work here.

Voice (tone)

I’m tempted to characterise this as ‘faux distant/cool’ in that an initial read through give the feel of analysis, of a skewed grab at objectivity. More attentive readings reveal that is is juxtaposed with a lyrical desperation that’s hinted at but never actually appears. The other facet that becomes clearer with reading is the anthemic quality- I keep hearing ‘Howl’ as I read. None of this may make sense but what is for certain is there is loads of thought provoking stuff going on here.

Theme / genre

Apart from Amerika in all its glory, theres a lot of astute observation about how we are coerced into ‘doing’ culture and how good we’re getting at lying to ourselves. I like to think that what’s going on is best epitomised by-

Some do compromise very nicely
emotional but daddy scrubs up like Jesus Christ so get on.

But, magnificent though this is, it doesn’t do any kind of justice to the quality and provocation of the sequence as a whole which needs to be thought of as running a single and coherent observation.


The above is another failed attempt to articulate how good/talented/important Weber’s work is and a further indication that the young talents (Weber was born in 1990) currently working in the UK provide the rest of us with the privilege and delight of reading them and smiling and being staggered and more than a little jealous and struck by how some of this stuff is breaking new ground for poetry above and beyond the tired old labels and judgements that my generation have made.

Poetry and crisis, the case of Better than Language and Kazoo Daydreams

The question here can be briefly formulated: does poetry get better as things get worse?

Others have remarked here that we are especially fortunate to be living through a period in the UK where a great deal of excellent work is being produced both by ‘established; poets and a younger group of rising stars. There may be all kinds of reasons for this but I’m increasingly of the view that the above correlation might be a major factor.

This is prompted by a view I came across this morning that ascribes the flowering of poetic and dramatic endeavour of the 1590s as a response to the many religious upheavals of the previous fifty years. My initial response was to reject this and replace with something about the much improved teaching in grammar schools of the period or the growth in the legal profession or the rise to dominance of the mercantile class or colonial adventuring by grammar school boys on the make. I then paused and tried the ‘crisis’ thesis out on other periods. The flowering of what J A Burrows has described as Ricardian verse occurred after the Black Death of 1348 which decimated the population and emptied large parts of our countryside, the reign of Richard II was (to put it mildly) politically fragile and the practices of the church were being challenged by Wycliffe and the Lollards.

The 1590s pale in comparison with the latter half of the fourteenth century but they were nevertheless difficult times. The church was making reasonably draconian attempts to enforce some kind of orthodoxy, military campaigns were being pursued in the Low Countries and yet another futile war was being fought in Ireland, the monarch was getting older and no-one knew who would succeed her, there was famine in the middle of the decade and the elite were more paranoid than usual about domestic unrest. These were not the easiest of times.

So, the hypothesis gathers a strength that is reinforced by the Romantics who first flowered in the aftermath of the political angst brought about by the French Revolution and who flourished during a period of enormous social and political upheaval.

There is also the argument that Paradise Lost could only have been written after the various traumas of the previous thirty years.

But before I get carried away, it might be as well to consider what I might mean by crisis. The third OED definition is:

A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied esp. to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce.

I want to put a slight twist on this and point out that the anxiety-inducing experience of being in a crisis stems from the uncertainty of how things will turn out. Those living through the latter half of the fourteenth century were acutely aware that disease could strike at random and with enormous force and were living through a chaotic ‘re-balancing’ of social and economic forces which are reflected in the vibrant poetry of Langland, Chaucer and others. What I’m trying to get to is that crisis is characterised by societal and individual anxiety stemming from this not knowing.

It seems to me that we are in a period of not knowing which is manifested by the rise of China and India and the consequent decline of the West together with the slowly dawning realisation, especially in the UK that the elite are both corrupt and dismally incompetent. This is matched by the massive changes wrought by the internet which do throw many prior truths into question (privacy, authenticity, ways of doing science etc.). There are also the challenges posed by an aging population and climate change.

I’m going to start with Better than Language, Chris Goode’s magnificent anthology of younger British poets. In his astute introduction Chris writes:

To write a poem is to to want to see something in the world that isn’t yet in it, however direly complicated or conflicted that wanting might be and however ungraspable the author’s sense of the lack of the poem before it’s made. And from its earliest intimations, the poem is asking questions about what will and will not be included in its compass. Which voices will be heard, what life-paths will cross within its system, whose desires can be admitted? To which areas will the reader have access? How tall must you be to ride this attraction? What moments will amount to to the constructed event in which author and audience encounter each other? How much language can this poem bear? And of course all these questions point to another: on what basis, and in the light of what responsibilities, will the poet attempt to answer as she proceeds? Which is partly to ask: What don’t I know yet? What are the known unknowns, those Rumsfeldian phantoms, that negatively shape the composition of a particular poem at a particular time and place? And what do we do with the impossibility of an approach to these questions that takes us even a whit beyond tolerable insufficiency? – Believe me, not every poet now at work is aware these are real and present questions. Here are thirteen who are.

Whilst wholeheartedly agreeing with all of the above, I’d like to argue that this awareness is bound up with and is directly related to this wider sense of crisis fuelled by the many (too many) Rumsfeldian phantoms inm the wider world.

The other point that I’d like to throw into the mix is that Prynne read ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ to a group of Occupy activists and that the Occupy movement does seem to be the most sensible political response (with its refutation of dogma and refusal to promote ‘easy’ solutions) that we currently have. I’d also like to point out Prynne’s use, in ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ of ‘Piers Plowman’, one of the great poems of the Ricardian period and concerned with all aspects of crisis as discussed above and one (in any of the three texts) that doesn’t present solutions.

I’m not suggesting that good poetry now is a direct reflection of these phantoms but what I am considering is that crisis throws things into a state of flux and that there are a number of very talented poets that have used this as a tool and are producing work of tremendous strength and depth with it as opposed to trying to make ‘sense’ of it.

In a recent discussion about readerly anxiety with John Boomberg=Rissman, John made the point that “RA may be the only response that can be made although I’m not sure that we want to make the “unjudgeable space” bearable. I think we want to bear its unbearableness, so to speak. It seems honorable, if I can still use a term like that”. I’m now of the view that these poets are engaged in this ‘bearing’ with more than a little honour.


The above is the second poem (of two) in ‘F subscript zero’ which was published by Equipage in 2007. I’ve written about the first poem before and had decided that the above was too introspective / self-indulgent to be bothered with. I’ve re-read it a couple of times over the weekend and am now of the view that it should be bothered with because some of the things that it does work really well.

It’s also possible/feasible to draw more of a line from ‘The Unconditional’ to ‘Dionysus Crucified’ through ‘Symp’ in terms of the way that some things are done. I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the more important obvious elements rather than to hazard a tentative guess at what things might ‘mean’.


It would appear that readers are identified and addressed as throats and, less frequently, other body parts involved in speaking (teeth, necks, palates, ventricles) as if to encourage a level of identification with the poet:

  O fellow throats! O o"'"s! Perhaps you also have known one hour 
at which no string but bitters nor no alone grunt can wring out but a tit
or perhaps you alone have also known one infintesimal "and" therefore real.


Tub. Dur. Tat. I begin again. Tub. O fellow throats! lever a buccal gap to and approx mouth shape now and retch
thoughts in their proper order to the sink: improper objects to the exit hole. T

This emphasis on speech components might suggest that this is a poem to be read aloud but may also be about the vulnerability of the throat and the fallibility of the words that it makes.

This would be a difficult poem to read aloud because it isn’t clear as to how some phrases should be vocalised- ‘Hmm mph r mm/get’ or the missing word used above- and the last page contains a pattern which is a top to down phrase using one letter per line as with ‘T’ above.

Obscure words

We have a range of obscure words, I’m still defining ‘obscure’ as words that I don’t know the meaning of or need to check. There is also this line:

  as obsolete or foreign words dud or incarcerate down into a priamel and legible only as mock or booty.

which I’m taking as an acknowledgement of the difficulties presented to the reader although it does come in the middle of the obligatory ‘car’ section (see below). The OED tells me that ‘priamel’ is still being used and provides this definition- ” Originally: a type of short poem cultivated in Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries, culminating in a witty or ingenious turn of thought. Later applied to similar literary forms; spec. (in ancient Greek poetry) a device in which a number of items or options, culminating in a preferred one, are listed for comparison”. I think I’m also going to include ‘pop habitus’ as obscure because not everyone has read Bourdieu (even though they should) and not include it in the foreign section because it has now become part of English- hasn’t it?

The use of ‘vel’ as in ‘so the most important to paint / vel no-muck’ is both obsolete and obscure whereas ‘ipseity’ is just obscure. The use of ‘catachretic’ as in ‘its figuring retina-soul convert to ocean / being the thus catachretic body parts they are’ is either a typo or a bit too clever as ‘catachrestic’ is defined as ” Of the nature of catachresis; wrongly used, misapplied, wrested from its proper meaning”. The aforementioned ‘buccal’ is also obscure. I’m not including ‘interstitial’ but I do think that ‘interstitial void’ is an example of trying too hard.

Foreign words and phrases.

Regular readers will know that frequent and/or extensive use of foreign phrases is one of the things that we are implacably against. The reason for this is twofold-

  • readers who are not multilingual and haven’t spent a lifetime in the academy might feel more than a little intimidated by the use of foreign terms and phrases and may feel discouraged from reading further;
  • it is usually superfluous in that things can be said equally well in English.

There are exceptions to the second part of this when the use of the foreign term is the only way to carry the full weight of what needs to be said but these exceptions are few and far between.

‘SYMP’ starts with ‘Durch grub vers lux or lunch deflected……’ which doesn’t bode well and then we have this as a complete line-

Durch men-ya blub and men-ya langsam dop hei special ranger

I’ll freely confess that I haven’t gone to any lengths at all to work this out and I also need to point out that it was this that has deterred me from bothering with the poem until now. This is a pity because the rest of the poem desists from this kind of gesture and more than rewards attention.

I’m fully aware that this practice isn’t going to change anytime soon but that doesn’t mean that it’s an okay or reasonable conceit even though it has a long pedigree and is considered conventional by some. I take some encouragement from the fact that this particular trait doesn’t seem to have been inherited by the younger group of poets recently anthologised in ‘Better than Language’.

To try and bolster my case, I would argue that there are other ways of saying “The remainder is imperfect repetition of the immergleich novel in episodes of pluswert night on night” and that this ‘mix’ just feels awkward.


Simon Jarvis poems usually contain reference to the British road network and/or cars. Simon has explained this in a recent interview and ‘SYMP’ contains this oddly powerful passage-

 Twigs and parts of a wire cut off some sections of a removed area just over by where the cars
could not be said to wait or stand but were: could not be said in an emphatic sense to be
more than the vehicles shining with all flung work of gorgeous metals not less barbaric than alien
in surfaces of almost wholly suppressed colour singing out as brightly to the abstractly possible sight
as obsolete or foreign words dug or incarcerate down into a priamel and legible only as mock or booty.

What I think I admire most about Jarvis’ work is his ability to be cerebral, lyrical and appropriately odd at the same time- “all flung work of gorgeous metals not less barbaric than alien”- ‘gorgeous’ really shouldn’t work in this context and I have yet to work out why it does.

So, the use of pattern, the continued references to roads / cars and the use of verse to do philosophy are all developed here in advance of ‘Dionysus’ as is the use of myth (in this case the story of Actaeon’s death) to do more complex things. The descending ‘ATTEONE MORTO’ down the lines of the last page anticipates the much more complex patterning in Dionysus but both poems seem to be pointing in the same kind of direction.

Amy De’Ath and the determined tulips on The Claudius App (2)

I have been intending to write about Amy De’Ath for some time and the inclusion of four of her poems on the latest issue of The Claudius App and her remarkable reading of Jonty Tiplady’s ‘The Undersong’ in the same issue has prodded me further in this direction.

In Chris Goode’s introduction to the ‘Better than Language’ anthology he concedes that several of the important younger poets have been admitted and rightly points out that readers will have a list of those who should also have been included. My personal and highly subjective list has Emily Critchley, Luke Roberts and Amy De’ath competing for first place but for entirely different reasons apart from the fact that they are all very very good.

These four poems indicates a degree of control that’s more advanced than most of De’Ath’s peers. I get a very strong sense of poems that are in charge of themselves and know where they are going, there’s also an enviable degree of skill with language. In order to show what I mean I want to focus on ‘Heaven’ and ‘You Win’ because they’re both long enough to show how this control is sustained.

On the first and second readings of ‘Heaven’, I had a problem with the road signs, the melon factory, the vole and the tulips because these appeared to be selected for their oddness alone. However I’m now beginning to see the point because heaven in this sense refers to a separate dream-like world more than it does to a perfect one although the poem seems to assume that we aspire to the ideal too.

The inclusion of the tulips does however throw up a number of questions:

  1. What are the tulips determined to do?
  2. How does a tulip show that it is determined?
  3. If the tulip’s have emerged from ‘heaven’s side door’ then which planet is it that they are marching to the figurative edge of?
  4. Are we meant to assume that the planet is our own?
  5. Why did only some of the tulips leap of the edge of the planet
  6. What did the others lean into or against?
  7. Were the tulips, like bad angels, expelled from heaven or did they leave of their own accord?
  8. How does a tulip (determined or not) get to be in heaven?

None of these queries are intended as part of a quest for deeper understanding but it does illustrate the kind of processes that this material can initiate. The same sorts of questions can be asked about the appetite of roads signs and the slewing of melon juice but I want to try to concentrate on the effect of the poem as a whole. We start with the poet setting off to heaven but the last line of the in initial paragraph suggests that this may have been a dream. The keeping of stollen for emergencies whilst burning up is excellent as is the love that thrusts and yelps. We’re also given indications that mistakes will be made with the language (spirituals/forest, revolving faithful).

The personification of heaven as male and the idea that writing artlessly is a ‘measure of his talent’ is intriguing as the writing here does at times affect to be artless. Anyone who’s tried to write in this way will know that it does require a lot of talent to get it right. The next line is gloriously complex and manages to deliver an enormous amount of ambiguity (temper, grace) without appearing to try

I like the way the poem gradually loses the dream/surreal/subconscious affect and moves into something more concrete and urgent and the ‘you’ introduced and addressed. The arbitrary is apparently rejected but the last few lines talk about a booming moon and refer to a robbery which isn’t previously mentioned.

‘You Win’ has one of the best endings that I’ve read in ages. The references to other family members are more Ronnie Laing than Sigmund Freud but there’s generally less of the subconscious on display, unless you count Havel’s clam juice. I would question the wisdom of the Swindon / Wigan device in the first stanza but this is more than made up for by the pace of the rest and the shining genius of the the third and fourth. The notions of the ‘cryless sock’ and the ateing heart have kept me smiling for days now- I’m particularly impressed by the apparent lack of effort and the refusal to show off.

Poetic control comes in many shapes and sizes, there’s control over the formal elements, over word choice, over subject matter, over cadence etc etc. I think the kind of control here is about a considered inventiveness and by this I mean a quite startling originality in terms of both voice and subject that is tempered and given direction instead of being left to fend for itself. Tis is a rare and precious gift that sets De’Ath off from her (very talented) peers.

2011: a Landmark Year?

I like to think that I’m not normally given to hyperbole but I’m coming to the view that 2011 was something quite special in the small corner of the world that is British innovative poetry. I’d first like to clarify what I mean by ‘landmark’: the third OED definition for the noun is “An object which marks or is associated with some event or stage in a process; esp. a characteristic, a modification, etc., or an event, which marks a period or turning-point in the history of a thing”. I think it’s the idea of the turning-point that I’d like to emphasise in that last year saw the publication of a number of poems and one anthology that seemed to herald a new phase in the late modernist vein. All of these developments, when taken as a whole, may also signify a ‘broadening’ of the genre. This new phase seems to be about a readiness to explore themes in a new and (in some instances) subversive way and a greater consistency in quality or technical efficiency or poetical prowess (I know what I mean).

In 1971 ‘Crow’, ‘Brass’ and ‘The Mercian Hymns’ were published, all of these have been immensely influential and marked a distinct tear in the fabric of British poetry- it does seem to me that a very similar thing occurred in 2011. You will note that I’m avoiding using ‘rupture’ which is bandied about by many Foucauldians because I don’t think that’s what has happened, I don’t think these works signal the end of modernism and ‘tear’ is the best noun I can come up with right now.

Of course what follows is entirely a personal view and is based solely on my reactions but I do think that I’d be able to defend this particular perspective with a degree of success. Let’s begin with the startling, which Prynne claims as an essential feature in poetry. I have been most startled by the changes in direction produced by Jeremy Prynne, Simon Jarvis and Keston Sutherland because each of these have confounded and overgone my view and expectations of their work. The publication of the ‘Better Than Language’ anthology brought home to me that they are a group of young poets (i.e. under 30) who are immensely talented and producing some incredibly proficient and accomplished work. The year also saw the publication of Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Meddle English’ which is important for all sorts of reasons (see below).

I’ve had a bit of a think as to why momentous things might be occurring now and I think there might well be a variety of things going on with the way in which material is circulated and/or published and may also have something to do with the economics of printing but none of these factors explain why three of our leading poets decided to go against their own grain nor why there should be such a rich crop of talent in those young people born in the eighties (ish).

I now have to be reasonably careful and resist the temptation to get carried away with the inherent wrongness of some of this work, I also need to keep my fondness for the odd in check and demonstrate instead how these events will change the direction of poetry in English. Let’s think about the influence platitude, it is relatively straightforward to draw a straight line from J.H. Prynne to Keston Sutherland and then on to many of the poets in the ‘Better Than Language’ anthology and to talk about the pervasive presence of everything Cambridge. I think this is to miss the point because I think influence is much more complex than simply encouraging imitation. What influence does is that it gives attentive readers permission to think in new and different ways. For example, none of these younger poets has written a long poem about American imperialism that features an animal from children’s fiction but many of them do seem to have taken works like ‘Stress Position’ and ‘Document’ to make a poetics of their own.

So I don’t think we are seeing (at long last) Prynne’s presence in the work of younger poets but I do think we’re benefiting from a wide range of startling work from Timothy Thornton, Sarah Kelly, Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette, Luke Roberts and many others who all seem intent on ‘making it new’.

There now follows a work by work account of the material in question and why I think each is so pivotal.

Dionysus Crucified

Long lines, disordered text, outline of the cross, kenosis, archaic themes of the sorrowful and/or returning God, Church Fathers, the workings of grace, masque and anti-masque, the face he wears to the bank, deeply confrontational and a radical performance on the page, emasculation and murderous dissolution, Cheryl and Ashley Cole, private security outfits as an instrument of foreign policy. I believe that’s a reasonable precis of what I’ve thus far been able to glean but what it does for the rest of us is that it enables us to consider the possibilities that it suddenly opens up, not to mention the two lines devoted to the British road network…

Meddle English

I still want to be Caroline Bergvall but the above is important because of its intelligence and the possibilities that it throws open. She does repetition really well and has a really strong grip on what matters-

Let’s imagine the midden of language. Robert Smithson brought a strong interest in geology to his views of language. Gordon Matta-Clark cut transversally through the structures of a condemned Paris apartment building. Let us cut a cross-section into building stacks of language. What gets revealed is history and ground. Or rather, ground history, compost, history as compost. Temporariness and excavation. Volatility, weathering and renewal.

and this from ‘Goam Atom’-

followed by
Colon speechmarks
Trouble in the Hous
illy all tied up

Nothing random
says the EVERY HOST
about the herrings of this
fanny face
Once remove
able envlope
just stamp
or aply
twice culled more loved

All presently engage in a

It is worth pointing out that Bergvall should not be overlooked or diminished in any way because her work moves between the printed page and the art gallery, this is the work of someone who is doing new and wonderful things with language in a way that gives me permission to almost step outside of what I do and consider things as a child would- from the beginning.

Kazoo Daydreams

Have now had this for only ten days but it is following me around the house. Some things can be said- there is only a fragile link with what has gone before and this probably heralds a change as radical as ‘Brass’ almost as if it’s a collision with his own circus, feels parodic in places, like it’s a ‘fake’ which calls brilliantly into question the whole collapse of authenticity that we’re starting to experience. The reference cues appear to be deliberately eclectic and some are inserted as block paragraphs into the text. Needless to say, nobody else is doing this, nobody else has thought of doing this, nobody else would do this, I didn’t consider for one moment that Prynne would do this. Provides too much to think about / argue with:

These are the markers of what’s there, what there is by necessity in the field of self-play and no player, deduct mentally. There is a garden in her face, when owls do cry, or if I live, or if I die. Molecular contradiction given out for taken aback, ‘each new distribution seems to contradict what preceded it; since there are no predictable continuities, one can only listen in the immediate present to each moment as it occurs.’

That’s a garden in her face and listening to moments in the immediate present…… Staggering, brilliant, bonkers and addictive. Again, it’ll take me a long time to work out just how much permission this gives.

Did I mention the parrot?

The Odes

My newest copy of the ‘Odes to TL61P’ dates from March last year and I know that Keston has done a lot of work on it since. The drafts that I’ve seen contain this extraordinary blend of political analysis, confessional and an examination of our view of sexuality and desire in children- the copy I have also has the title ‘Paedohebeëpheboteleiophilia’. It is Sutherland’s must accomplished work to date and it’s also disturbing on many levels, as I’ve written in the past but I think it is also important to recognise the quite radical shift that this marks in Keston’s work and a major advance in how to ‘do’ political poetry. I must emphasise that it’s a landmark because it gives the rest of us permission to consider what is and isn’t appropriate in a poem and to re-cast those boundaries. I understand that it will be published later this year by an American publisher and must be read by everyone on the planet.

For the sceptics, here’s a brief extract-

The public loves to be told that it has to learn to expect 
less, because everyone wants everyone else to have less,
and everyone is willing to have less himself if that is the
price for making everyone else but him have less. What a cunt. The blood of virginity lost
in space, jouissance in the puissant stars, / life is a set up
same principle as the banking disaster
one love used to leverage another, one life
namely another renamed the next
by Vodaphone is the leverage for Buddha
the meek, whose metaphysical persistence of the person
in late Beethoven as in late adolescence
misbehaves like grinding teeth, moves in,
leaves its unwashed performance art shit all over the place
where what you say is what you do
without including less of you, pay attention
the fire drill in the family quad at lunchtime
is not cancelled in the end. You know that because this is
the end, and it is not cancelled yet; I will
likely not ever meet anyone I love so much as
you again; but I want to try some men before I die.

Better Than Language.

I rarely buy anthologies because I usually only like one or two of the anthologised and resent (in true Northern working class fashion) paying money for stuff that I’ll only read in order to decide how much I dislike it. ‘Better Than Language’ is the shining exception to this rule in that it is knee deep in talent throughout and declares the arrival of a disparate cohort of young poets who are demonstrating that there’s still a lot of life left in the modernist vein. As well as their technical ability, these poets (along with a number of others) are showing the rest of us what can and should be done with the poem. The range is broad and the quality is consistent throughout, although I would personally single out Timothy Thornton, Francesca Lisette, Jonty Tiplady and Sarah Kelly as favourites for very different reasons and, having written down those names, I realise that there’s also Joe Luna, Luke Roberts and Emily Critchley that also make me smile a lot and I still haven’t mentioned the astounding work that Jonny Liron is putting together….

I’m not going to quote favourite extracts because that would take for ever, all you have to do is proceed to the Ganzfeld Press site and part with a mere 10 English pounds and you should do this because in fifty years time lovers of poetry will still be reading it with more than a little reverence, and amking notes.

Better Than Language, Anna Ticehurst, Sarah Kelly and the halo effect.

I was going to be reasonably methodical with the ‘Better than Language’ anthology, I was going to write about the poets that really impressed me in fairly rapid succession. I di some forward planning, I identified the bits of Anna Ticehurst’s poems that I wanted to rave about and gave considerable thought to how Sarah Kelly’ work made me feel.

And then I got distracted and went meandering off in other directions (an all too common occurrence) and have only now returned to the anthology. ‘Better than Language’ is a landmark publication because it brings together in one place a concentration of immensely talented younger poets and must be read and argued about by all those who have any kind of interest in the state and nature of British poetry. I know that I have said this before but, in this instance, I don’t have any problem at all with repeating myself.

Anna Ticehurst.

According to the blurb, Ticehurst was born in Bristol in 1986 and is currently studying to be a secondary teacher at the University of Brighton, she’s had stuff published in Cleave, Quid, Intercapillary Space and Openned so it’s odd that I haven’t noticed her before. The work occupies a unique corner in the wry/clever/exceptionally articulate section of British poetry and should not be overlooked primarily because it does several things very, very well and does them in a way that neither shouts nor whispers. I’ll try and give a few examples of these things:


Regular readers will know that I am very partial to poems that end well, and that I know what I mean about ending well but have a hard time putting this into coherent language. The temptation is always just to quote the ending and then to assume that everyone else will be instantly converted to my point of view. This is a technique that only works for me and is really rather lazy. Because some of Ticehurst’s endings are so accomplished, I’m going to use a couple of them and try to explain how they work so well. This is the end of ‘Sunbathing under Surveillance Camera One’:

An analgesic piped through Bloomsbury
brickwork does for all, stirrups the air
through martingal'd vents and pierces the
bubble with the hacking of COPD.

First of all there’s the elegant and intelligent central phrase- ‘stirrups the air / through martingal’d vents’ which is startling in itself but is contrasted with the quite brutal shock of ‘the hacking of COPD’. As the title implies the poem is a wry and angry riff on the many contradictions and apparent hypocrisies of life in the perpetually mediated West and its many insecurities. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is directly linked to poverty, a condition that almost exclusively affects the underclass. It’s also deeply unpleasant with sufferers having to struggle for every breath that they take which is why it is so effective here. The other bonus, I would argue, is that ‘COPD’ is not poetic, not lyrical and is not dressed up here to make it more ‘fitting’. This is a Very Good Thing especially if you share my belief that there’s too much of the poetic in contemporary verse.

Then there’s the ending that doesn’t seem to work at first or second reading but then becomes the best part of the poem. This is the end of ‘Open Season’:

In the Centenary Gardens,
I lose you
push pavements to the back of my eyes,
fighting at losses in the tinted interior,
swallow Optrex and do away
with the periscope only to
silence desires and shove them into little paper bags
to discard like sugar.

On a first reading this felt too stylised for its own good and the last line fell flat almost as if it wasn’t making any effort at all- an example of the unpoetic teetering on to the facile (banal). Then I started to think a bit more about the little papers bags and how exactly sugar might be ‘discarded’ and then things began to speak to me and become very special and completely appropriate.

Word choice

Most makers of poetry know that the selection of words is a crucial component in the making of the poem because the ‘right’ word is what makes the difference between something that ‘works’ and something that doesn’t. Of course, most of us have our own ideas of what good word choice should produce and mine are no more correct than anyone else but I think I can show why the following are so effective. This is from ‘Sunbathing under Surveillance Camera One”:

date palm oases washing the skins
in salt-water brilliance and free-thinking

vacuum pumps in an oxygen tent
flick-knife the opportunity like
kissing a wet dog in the rain

The two words that I’d like to draw attention to are ‘brilliance’ and ‘flick-knife’ because they are both being used in unusual ways and yet provide a more accurate picture of what needs to be said. ‘Brilliance’ also has the effect of encouraging the read to visualise what is being said and how it might differ from other kinds of liquid brilliance. It can be argued that ‘flick-knife’ is over-shadowed by the image in the last line but I would argue that the two complement each other in a very satisfying and compelling way. I’m not sure about ‘free-thinking’ because it feels a bit unnecessary but that’s probably because I haven’t paid sufficient attention to the rest of this very accomplished poem.

Sarah Kelly and the halo effect.

In this instance the halo effect refers to qualities that we like in ourselves that we see in others. It is something managers are told to guard against when selecting candidates for employment, we are likely to select those that appear to be most like us regardless of whether they are the best candidate for the job.

The thing is that Sarah Kelly is writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I didn’t think that poetry is currently too poetic. The other thing is that Sarah Kelly is much better at writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I wasn’t making poems out of sketch map labels and Gillian Welch set lists. This does at least have the advantage of not having to write poetic poetry ever again which is a bit of a relief but it’s also a bit weird because I feel as if I know what’s going on in this work at an unusually deep level so I read it as a kind of co-conspirator rather than as an ordinary passer-by.

Obviously, this stuff is absolutely brilliant and will single-handedly save the poetic sort of poetry from itself. It fulfils and surpasses all of the Bebrowed criteria:

  • short lines;
  • absence of titles;
  • absence of big or foreign words;
  • a satisfyingly sparse intensity
  • exceptional word choice;
  • great endings.

So, ignoring the halo effect, I’d like to use a longish extract to demonstrate why this is really essential stuff:

the three leaves 
rest like three
feathers I tell you
of and the
triangularity of our
bespoke hope
non spoke
in trust-structures
etched on prized
unwritten place
the gap
between shoulder
and base that
contorts as
you turn to
look at my
unlooking resolve

I could wallow in this stuff for a very, very long time but it is clearly an object lesson on how to do very complicated (and quite profound) things with a deliberately constrained palette. The brevity of each line forces us to think carefully about what the line is really saying and the chosen words build to create an increasingly rich range of emotions through to the brilliance of the last three lines. This is only one extract from a series of consistently impressive poems which really do stand out in tone and skill from the rest of this very impressive collection.

Because of the halo effect, I’ve tried hard to find bits that I don’t like or bits that don’t ‘work’. I have to report that the only quibble I may have is that some of the poems may be too sparse and oblique to attract the attention that they warrant but this is, at best, a tactical quibble and has nothing to do with the merit of the poems as poems.

Better than Language is available from ganzfeld press for a mere ten of your finest English pounds. There is no excuse.

Metamodernist poetics

This might take some time.

Over the weekend I fell across (largely by chance) ‘Notes on metamodernism’ by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker and read it. Normally I get quickly annoyed/bored by attempts to find a label for whatever replaced the last label but this makes a number of points that might have some relevance to the current state of British poetry.

The first thing that caught my eye was this quote from Jerry Solz in the New Yorker:

I’m noticing a new approach to artmaking in recent museum and gallery shows. . . . It’s an attitude that says, I know that the art I’m creating may seem silly, even stupid, or that it might have been done before, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t serious. At once knowingly selfconscious about art, unafraid, and unashamed, these young artists not only see the distinction between earnestness and detachment as artificial; they grasp that they can be ironic and sincere at the same time, and they are making art from this compound-complex state of mind.

These description seems to ‘fit’ with a lot of the poetry that has impressed me in recent years and I want to use this opportunity to think about the different ways that this ‘compound-complex’ mentality may have found voice in poetry.

A definition.

The authors make a case for the metamodern consisting of an ‘oscillation’ between the modern and the post-modern with a twist of neo-romanticism thrown in. I accept that this is a crude characterisation but I think it does get to the essence of the argument.

I continue to have an inherent distrust of labels and of periodisation because they usually hide lazy ways of thinking and the modern/postmodern distinction is often as useless as the medieval / early modern divide. However I am prepared to concede that something did seem to occur in the mid-seventies involving a loss of faith in the relentless march of progress. I’m also prepared to concede that modernism tends to be quite serious/pompous and that the postmodern sets out to undermine this by use of irony and pastiche.

The essay doesn’t bother to define oscillation which is a pity because I think that this might be the most salient point of the argument. The OED has a number of definitions- “movement to and fro; periodic motion about a position of equilibrium, as the swinging of a pendulum”, “A single movement to and fro; a vibration”, ” In music, same as beat‥or beating”, “Vacillation, fluctuation, or wavering between two states, opinions, principles, purposes, etc.; an instance of this” and ” A rapid alternation in the direction of flow of a current; the state of a circuit in which this is occurring. Also: an electromagnetic wave produced by such a current”. I think they mean a rapid movement between two points rather than as in a pendulum- because this would imply a ‘position of equilibrium’ which doesn’t actually exist. I’m trying to ignore the application of ‘metataxis’ because apparently it leads to things being ‘here, there and nowhere’ which is a vain attempt to have your cake and eat it.

Metamodern polarities.

Here’s some polarities identified in the essay;

  • a desire for sens / a doubt about the sense of it all;
  • enthusiasm / irony;
  • hope / melancholy;
  • naivety / knowingness;
  • empathy / apathy;
  • unity / plurality;
  • totality / fragmentation;
  • purity / ambiguity;
  • authenticity / pastiche
  • involved / detached;
  • elitist / democratic.

I’ve added the last two because they seem relevant to what the essay is trying to say.

You may think that this has little or nothing to do with contemporary poetry in the UK but I want to show this rapid movement is used by several different poets with very different aims in mind. I’m going to use Geoffrey Hill, Keston Sutherland, Simon Jarvis and Jonty Tiplady to attempt to demonstrate this. As ever, this is an entirely provisional view that may well be amended / refuted at some later date.

A metamodern Triumph of Love.

Geoffrey Hill is often described as a ‘late’ or a ‘high’ modernist poet. This isn’t particularly useful but a lot of his output does seem to sit firmly at the ‘modern’ end of the spectrum listed above. There are however a number of glaring and significant exceptions to this observation. Two of Hill’s finest works are ‘Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ neither of which fit altogether comfortably into the exclusively modern camp.

‘The Triumph of Love’ is on one level a deeply serious consideration of the Very Bad Things that have occurred in the 20th century which concludes that grace, individual love, decency and endurance have enabled us to endure / survive. At the time of publication, Hill came in for some critical flak for the way that this very serious theme was interspersed with several much lighter / knowing elements. There are the editorial comments placed within the poems, the direct abusive addresses to three unfortunate critics and the occasional refrain from stand-up comedy. The sequence is made up of 150 numbered poems, most of these fit into one category or the other but some combine both. Poem LXIII belongs firmly at the modern end:

These obscenities which - as you say - you fancy
perverting the consecration; you hear them all right
even if they are unspoken, as most are. It is
difficult always to catch the tacit
echoes of self-resonance. Is prayer
residual in imprecation? Only
as we equivocate. When I examine
my soul's heart's blood I find it the blood
of bulls and goats.
Things unspoken as spoken give us away.
What else can I now sell myself, filched
from Lenten Hebrews?

Here we have a desire for ‘sens’ together with a strong interest in unity and authenticity. There’s also a very earnest and serious tone together with the elitist obscurity of the last two lines. It’s also significant that this kind of stuff epitomises how Hill is portrayed in the ‘quality’ press: religious; grumpy; obscure and more than a little intimidating.

At the other end we have poem XL:

For wordly, read worldly; for in equity, inequity;
for religious read religiose; for distiction
detestation. Take accessible to mean
acceptable, accommodating, openly servile.
Is that right, Missis, or is that right? I don't
care what I say do I?

Excessive wordplay, the self-conscious anticipation and defiance of criticism (to write accessible verse is to be ‘openly servile’) followed by pastiche- this is all fairly post-modern, isn’t it?

Now we come to oscillation, ie moving between the two extremes in a single poem this is CXXXI:

Mourning registers as celebration. Haydn
at sixty-six, his clowning majesty
of invention never bettered [He means,
I think, the late 'Erody' Quartets - ED]
Bartok dying in New York, unfinished
music among the sickbed detritus:
ta-Rah ta-Rah ta-rarara Rah

This is the third of five poems with the same last line, all of which are intended to be playful. This is the only one of the five to have an editorial intervention. There is a to-ing and fro-ing between these two devices and the serious point being made about how one element of mourning can be seen as a celebration of the dead person’s life (the whole business of memorialisation is a key factor in Hill’s work. So, can this movement be usefully described as metamodern? Or is it simply late modern with a few postmodern bits thrown in?

Keston Sutherland

We now come to the slightly more complex case of Keston Sutherland. I’m going to use ‘Hot White Andy’ and ‘Stress Position’ because they both throw up quite involved questions about the use of stylistic and formal devices. The first observation to be made is that Sutherland is a Marxist and, as such, he ought to be a clear advocate of modernism’s totalising and Grand Narrative tendencies. He should be writing deadly serious and committed poetry about the political and economic issues of the day, he should have no time at all for the playful fripperies of the postmodern.

There is also the problem of differentiating between the modernist sneer and postmodern playfulness. The first is profoundly elitist and undemocratic whereas the second runs the danger of being simply vacuous. The first example for consideration is from ‘Hot White Andy’ where “I remember that / they were showing Bleaching Lenny. which has this gloss at the bottom of the page-

British reality TV show. Famous comedian Lenny Henry is caught on camera indavertently bleaching himself, one body part per week. In the final episode (8) of the series we are given to contemplate a morose Henry, by this point a ghastly supernatural alabaster from head to foot except for his (since episode 7) quasi-autonomous scrotum, engaged in teabagging an unnamed but invidiously Chinese companion of unfathomable gender. Henry fails to detect through the dark suck-hole in her latex Marsillio Ficino mask, the two tiny hidden natatorium of bleach fashioned ingeniously out of an aluminium peel-lid from a peach yoghurt pot Henry dared to lick out in the first episode (2).

Using the ironic, knowing footnote is a postmodern device, an interest in celebrity is a postmodern trait. The language of the above is also an ironic comment on the glossing of poetry. For those who don’t recall, Henry started his career by impersonating and making fun of black immigrants to the UK from the West Indies and was subsequently pilloried (as a black comedian) for pandering to racial stereotypes. So, I guess we’re meant to go along with this rather facile bleach metaphor and have a bit of a white-boy sneer, all of which feels a bit second hand even if we pause to reflect on the inclusion of Ficino’s first name. I think I’m of the view that this is a piece of old=fashioned modernism trying quite hard to wear a postmodern frock.

The next obvious candidate for metamodernism is Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’. It is deeply po-mo to include fictional characters from other periods and genres as if to flaunt notions of authorial/poetic chicanery and sleight of hand. Having Black Beauty (the horse created by Anna Sewell) as a main character in a poem about American imperialism and torture in Iraq would not normally be seen as a modernist device. I have written at length about the poem as a whole but looking at it in terms of this particular divide then it does contain many postmodern devices together with passages that are resolutely in a ‘modern’ voice. The clearest examples (apart from the horse) ar the b-movie quasi kitsch ending and the remarkable and very modernist dream riff on mental illness.

I’m not entirely clear that there is much oscillation going on between the two but I’ll give this further thought.

The Jarvis sneer.

With regard to Simon Jarvis, I’ve looked again at the Princess Di / Paul Burrell ‘theme’ in F0 and at the Cheryl and Ashley Cole quips and I can’t get much further than reading them both as straightforward modernist sneers. I’m prepared to accept that I might be missing some key ingredient but I see both as old-fashioned elitism. I’m not entirely sure where the Jarvis interest in the British road network and related signage fits in ths spectrum, if at all which might underline the problem with this kind of exercise.

Jonty Tiplady’s hurt face.

When I first read the essay, two poets were vying in my head for attention in the metamodern, Geoffrey Hill and Jonty Tiplady. The second of these was provisional but stemmed from something I’d written about Jonty’s contribution to ‘Better than Language’. I don’t normally quote myself but I am rather pleased with this- “This is really clever stuff that’s deceptively straightforward whilst actually managing to undermine to poetry-making business in a number of different ways. I’m particularly impressed by the humanity of the ‘voice’ running through this and the way in which the playful tries to batter the serious into submission”. I think this ‘battering’ process might be close to what the essay calls ‘oscillation’. It so happens that on my hard drive sits a prose piece by Tiplady that has yet to see the light of day. It is called “But my face hurts” and this is from somewhere in the middle-

Sit down in your room if you have one and think carefully about whether there is really anything left to say. Make sure you say in the next moment whatever it is you decide is then left. The end of the end is the end. You can find
my eyes in the sockets in my skull. Please come straight up to me and kiss me. Please rape me properly. Bugs Bunny is a
stupid fucking bunny rabbit. I am not interested in wearing any clothes anymore. I am not surprised by how many times I
pretend to have conversations with you. I am surprised by how cruel kindness seems. I have never had any idea what is
happening. Such cruelty comes from everything. I think I have a mania about the planet. This morning I was worried my
hands would hit me. Last night I was worried my Dad would be in the bathroom when I turned the light on. I am getting older and I will die eventually. My hands are so big. There have been several perfect moments.

At some time in the future I want to go on at much greater length about how utterly wonderful this is but here I want to point out the embodiment of the ‘everywhere and nowhere’ the utterly serious within the incredibly banal’ and the absence of earnest intensity that the metamodern might be about. I think the above demonstrates a very, very clever use of oscillation between and within registers. I was going to list the modernist and then the postmodern but I think they are reasonably obvious. What leaves me in jaw-dropping awe is how this very self-conscious series of statements manages to find by shifts in register and focus a very clear and compelling account of what it might be like to be alive in the clattering now.

So, am I now converted to labels? No, I don’t think that they are particularly useful but I do think that looking for common traits within those labels can be a useful way of rethinking some work. For example, I’m now more confident about what ‘The Triumph of Love’ might be trying to achieve and I’m even more convinced of the towering genius that is Geoffrey Hill. The New Yorker quote above has also pushed me into thinking about an ‘ethical turn’ that might be under way but I’ll need to think a bit more about this.

Joe Luna and clever poetry

I’ve been intending to do this for a while and have been stung into action by the inclusion of some Luna poems in the Better than Language anthology. Of the current group of younger poets, Luna is at the ‘clever’ end of the spectrum in a couple of ways, he says complex things in deceptive ways and these deceptions encourage the reader to think about the unspoken world that moves around the poem. This, by any definition, is clever stuff but there are number of pitfalls with cleverness. The first of these is being clever for the sake of being clever whereby the poet uses an obscure allusion or reference to say something that could be said in a more direct manner. The next is the use of the clever as a means of plumage and/or display. The last main trap (there are many others) is when poets disguise some banality by means of intellectual glitter – a trick that is fundamentally dishonest. Even our best poets seem incapable of falling into these from time to time.

I am however always ready to be impressed by the clever phrase, the point made with wit and intelligence, the off kilter but compelling juxtaposition etc etc, but I also like to think that I’m getting better at identifying where the above misdemeanours occur.

There’s a degree of nervousness that I need to address. I’m of the view that writing about clever oblique work should be done in as clear and direct a fashion as possible without underplaying the subtleties of the work. I’m also trying to find different ways to write about poetry so what follows is more than a little experimental.

When writing about Luna’s contribution to Better than Language I made the entirely provisional observation that what might matter is not what’s in the text but what’s around it. Since then I’ve been a bit concerned that this observation is both too clever for its own good and (much worse) inaccurate. So I’ve spent some time this morning with more of Luna’s work in an attempt to kick this particular piece of glibness into touch. This went reasonably well until I came to ‘Life’ in the ‘Lovers’ collection which starts like this:

         Life harping on at its believable
he will I say not
an incision, but life
itself. Now bite one off - the observable
universe wrapped in snow, an ulcer
sinks into a song.........

I don’t intend to undertake a detailed analysis of ‘Life’ or the above extract but I do want to use it as an illustration of what I mean about stuff going on outside and around the poem. In these eight lines we’re given a very wide field to play in, ‘life itself’ ‘the observable / universe’ would indicate that we’re in some kind of abstract territory but this is undercut by the particular, ulcers, incisions, angles and a life that harps on. This kind of polarity invites me as an attentive reader to fill in the gaps between the two and to concentrate on what might be placed there. The rest of the poem continues to make this demand on me and it’s a deeply absorbing process.

I’d now like to try and pin down this particular kind of cleverness by having a closer look at ‘For the White Lake Blot” which is on the remarkable Claudius App.

In my new found determination to experiment with ways of writing about poetry, here’s a list of things that I want to say:

  1. this teeters on the brink of the hyper clever which might not be a good thing;
  2. the way that the line endings/ruptures function throws up many questions about form but that’s probably the intention;
  3. the repetition at the start of part 4 is really effective although I do accept that I’m a bit obsessed by the reiteration business and am therefore biased. As with the enjambment I could go on about this for a very long time;
  4. section three fits Prynne’s breathtakingly startling criteria, the last line comes right out of nowhere and disturbs/challenges what’s gone before;
  5. there may be a whiff of the too clever hanging over section three but this is avoided or redeemed by lines 4 and 8 which are good enough to allay any concerns about pretension;
  6. I worry about section 7’s “read my lip gloss’ (which is naff) playing off against “in kid solemnity” (which isn’t) and my concern is whether this naff/not naff ploy is deliberate or unwitting;
  7. there is an argument to be had as to whether or not the poem’s last stanza is essential or annoyingly frivolous/gratuitous/smug. What’s interesting is that I don’t yet know which side I’m on.

There are some poems that don’t work or aren’t completely successful or feel a bit forced and I think this is primarily due to the nature of the risks that Luna is taking. It is much easier to do complex or abstract poetry in a single register but Luna is employing a number of registers not only as a means of expression but also as an integral part of that expression and in the very best poems he’s nodding in the direction of what might be going on rather than telling us. The risk with this is that the registers can begin to lose clarity or edge and the normally incisive tone descends into mere parody of itself. Fortunately this is rare in Tuna’s work but ‘esque’ from the Better than Language anthology is to my mind an example things beginning to get a bit smug and empty. The poem ends with this:

Four score and seven monkeys
late appeal makes
tied to win reprieve
conscious & waving & and drowning &
bent toward the sun at your
disposal well today we are giving
back to a new
future largesse replete
in range
of all my early poetry
on weather systems in Nevada

but I could not help it

Unless we’re being really ironic here, the last five lines are really quite bad, aren’t they? The reference to weather systems is neither odd enough nor vivid enough to justify/account for the mannered weakness of the last two lines. This clunkiness isn’t representative of the vast majority of Luna’s work but it does I think indicate the kind of risks that he runs.

On a final note, in the protracted discussion with Chris Goode, I did make the point that the unifying factors for me were more about desire, playfulness and subversion than ‘queerness’. I really do not want to reignite that debate but I would like to say that Luna manages to create poems that play with desire and yearning to subvert both political and poetic forms and that this is yet another reason for being optimistic about the future of British poetry.

Francesca Lisette: the Facts.

  1. Francesca Lisette writes incomparably stunning poetry that is embedded in the now;
  2. She has that rare talent of being able to say new things in new ways;
  3. Already her work shows a control over language that most of us can only dream of and wonder at;
  4. Those of us who recognise the above have a responsibility to write about her work with great care.

I’ve spent the last four months avoiding doing this. I’m confident that I can make a very strong case for all of the above facts but worry enormously about fact 4. As I said on an earlier post, Timothy Thornton and I did spend an hour or so on Twitter trying to come up with the ‘right’ thing to say about Lisette’s work and I came up with ‘raggedly defiant’ which is reasonably close but doesn’t express how good, in the sense of technical competence, she is. I’m also aware that I’m bored with the way that I currently say things about poetry so I’m going to true something new and identify (at some length) how I personally react to this stuff. The following observations are based on work published in ‘Better Than Language’, ‘Grasp no.5’ and the Claudius App.

The following elements are entirely subjective and deeply personal and have no theoretical justification whatsoever.

The smile effect

Good poetry makes me smile and really good poetry makes me smile a lot. This has to do with being impressed by the poet’s abilities especially in terms of phrasing and image creation but also in the knowledge that someone else thinks and cares about poetry and language as much as I do and that recognition of something shared. Lisette’s phrases and images are startlingly impressive. We have ‘a fierce matrimony of hurt lust and gunpowder’, ‘speechless with depth, we relinquish flounce’ and ‘Complete a thought, tho’ not before plucking out paper elbows, frotting boxes with ticks, juicing quarterly sermons within slip of an eye; play on.’. All of these make me smile a lot because of the element of surprise and the obvious delight in language but also because the strength of this stuff draws me in and encourages my readerly participation in this complex doing of poetry. At this point the smile turns into a grin.

Cleverness angst

I am a cleverness tart and this causes a whole raft of problems. I like to think that I’m fairly bright and, as an autodidact, I am remarkably free of the anxieties that Bourdieu describes. Tartdom does however mean that I’m overly ready to be impressed by clever people- I initially admired Obama’s cleverness and deployment of ‘proper’ rhetoric for example although I don’t think I was moved to the rampant optimism that gripped the American left. Underpinning this admiration is the sad fact that I get bored and distracted really easily and that clever stuff written by clever people usually keeps me occupied. The real downside with this tartdom is the lingering suspicion that something is clever for the sake of being clever rather than saying anything substantial or that the cleverness is being used to hide the fact that the material isn’t very good. The sense of betrayal when this realisation eventually arrives can be quite dramatic, I sulked for weeks when I realised that ‘The Four Quartets’ fell into this category.

Lisette is a clever poet who produces clever material but this is a fierce intelligence rather than being (merely) knowledgeable. There are very, very few foreign phrases and most of these are reasonably familiar, there are now obscure references to obscure figures or events but there is cleverness in abundance that both excites and throws down the gauntlet. As with other really accomplished poets, Lisette takes the reader’s head for a walk to new and exhilarating places which demonstrate how different ways of thinking are possible/feasible/essential.

I realise that this is a bold claim but I do have evidence. ‘What Continues’, the second poem on the Claudius App is an example of several very clever things being done at once, the theme is complex, the poem is technically accomplished with each quatrain forming an autonomous block, the ending is utterly brilliant and the sense of emotional depth and integrity is palpable. Of course I may be proved entirely wrong but this is authentic, undiluted cleverness and not some over-dressed frippery that is all too prevalent in poetry today.


I was once ‘against’ political poetry in all its forms. The reasons for this are twofold, the first being that poetry is really bad (inept) at ‘doing’ politics per se and the second is that most poets are decidedly weak on most kinds of political analysis and action. Chris Goode in his ‘Better than Language anthology remarks on the ‘anti=capitalist’ stance of his contributors as if this is in some way significant. Of course it is relatively common for anyone with half a brain cell to be against the global obscenity that is the unfettered and entirely pernicious free market but the real ‘trick’ is articulating an alternative that isn’t simply a re-hash of the usual Marxian fantasies. A feasible alternative (given where we are) is reasonably difficult to get our brains around never mind constructing it in poetic form. One of the very few things that unite J H Prynne and Vanessa Place is a commitment to showing how things are rather than how they ought to be which, for a whole range of reasons, is the only viable mode for poetry.

Francesca Lisette writes defiant, uncompromising and extreme political poetry and therefore I should hate it. The above position isn’t consistently applied however- Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ escapes outright condemnation because it manages to do many more things than ‘just’ critique our involvement in the Iraq fiasco. Lisette escapes too because of this and also because the delivery is so skilled and controlled. The following is the middle section from ‘Heterosexu-Normative, or, / Lines on the Spectacularization of Radical Dismemberment’:

Golluped tongue felt so sweetly, thresh into paranormal pre-dawn
&/ or morning stipulate check her answer against
flesh ice-light
because when I sit down to write of love horns shake
me out of intention, plain-vested stars leap in
perfect symmetry meanwhile diskette chew-toys
rampage past the train argument snaggled in
your discomfit-ready for
a new age crumbling
in mouth
as stiff plenty would have it.

Have I mentioned that Lisette is physically incapable of writing a bad line? There is an enormous amount going on the above yet it doesn’t feel forced or deliberately compressed, it reads so that you overlook the work and skill that’s gone into it. Charles Olson and John Matthias does this but Lisette does it with more passion and elan.

I hope that it will be noted that thus far I have avoided the usual set of adjectives but I can no longer resist- essential, crucial, important, challenging, uncompromising, hardcore, deadly serious, implacable. That feels better.